World Environment Day – June 5 – demands some sober reflection about the mess we humans have got ourselves into. And how the hell we get out.
Even the most insulated consumer of global media must be aware, by now, that the Earth’s twin poles, north and south, are in terrible trouble. And so, as a consequence, are we.
The scientific proof is overwhelming that man-made carbon emissions have thrown the planet into an untimely warming cycle that, so far, has raised its average temperature by more than a degree Celsius. According to the World Meteorological Office the present heatwave in the oceans and atmosphere puts us on track to exceed 1.5 degrees – the level governments worldwide vowed not to exceed – for the first time in human history by 2027 .
For the planet’s ‘airconditioner’, the polar regions, the prognosis is even grimmer. Spot temperatures in recent years have soared 30 and even 40 degrees above normal, triggering massive decay of the icecaps and unleashing a whole slew of new threats for humans to worry about. These include:
- Loss of the water that sustains billions of people, caused by the melting of mountain glaciers
- The risk that melting tundra and seabed methane could release the ‘sleeping giant’ of global warming, frozen carbon, doubling the amount now heating the planet
- Accelerating loss of sea ice in both Arctic and Antarctic, to the lowest levels ever seen. This leads to more dark, open ocean which also accelerates the rate of heating.
- Polar melting adds 420 billion tonnes of new water to the oceans a year, doubling the measured rate of sea level rise to 4.6mm/year, placing many small island nations under direct threat.
- Increased risks of rockslides, avalanches and glacial outbursts in mountainous countries.
- Slowing and possible breakdown in the vast undersea currents that regulate heat dispersal around the planet, leading to more dangerous weather patterns – floods, fires, droughts and hurricanes – impacting on the world food supply.
- Breakdown in the northern polar Jetstream, leading to more violent local storms and floods.
The point about all this is that – in spite those who sneer at starving polar bears – what happens at the poles doesn’t stay at the poles. It spreads out to embrace the entire planet, everyone and everything on it. There is already a significant chance that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by 2040, and a possibility the whole Earth could become virtually ice-free within a century – something that hasn’t happened for around 34 million years. A global food system that depends on a temperate climate will not survive.
Like human bipolar disorder, where the patient’s moods swing from one extreme to another, planetary bipolar disorder will set the parameters for human survival (food, water, heat, cold, fire, flood) on a chaotic path to Hothouse Earth, disintegrating communities, governments, nations. History has many stark reminders of what happens when civilisations outrun their resources – as all eventually do.
The irony of the Earth’s present ‘bipolar’ condition is that humans appear to have caught it as well. The collective human mind swings between the poles of acknowledging we are in deep trouble – and denying it, to ourselves and others.
The real danger in this universal mental condition is not posed by the overt denialists, paid stooges and ‘useful idiots’ of the $7 trillion global carbon lobby. They are easily ignored. The true danger lies in ‘soft denial’, of the kind being practised by governments and global corporates the world over.
Faced with the undeniable and escalating impacts of global heating and polar collapse on the nightly media, governments, corporate executives and shareholders the world over are quietly turning their faces away, saying to themselves “We don’t want to believe our world is disintegrating, so we’ll pretend it isn’t. And we’ll keep on mining fossil fuels, clearing land and overpopulating the planet in the meantime.” It’s a form of collective insanity. But it is self-imposed.
The governments of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil, India and China – to name just a few – are masters at mouthing the platitudes of climate action, and then quietly opening new oil and gasfields, coal mines or tar sands, hoping nobody will notice or keep track of the emissions. Their disingenuousness is exposed in the fact that world atmospheric carbon levels are rising steeply, despite all the promises made to cut them. They are governing for Big Carbon, not for their people or nations.
Do these governments seriously want to encompass the deaths of billions of human beings, which are the unavoidable consequence of their present policies? Perhaps not. So they just pretend to themselves it isn’t happening – and lie to electors and shareholders to buy themselves more time to do little or nothing about it. This form of ‘soft denial’, or self delusion, will be far more lethal in the long run than any amount of pro-carbon propaganda.
Thus we see both planet and people stricken by bipolar disorders – one of the physical Earth, and one of the human mind.
Is there any way out of the trap? The answer is yes, by ceasing to use fossil fuels in all forms, as soon as possible. By having far fewer children. By consuming and travelling far less. By adopting a circular global economy that reuses, instead of wasting and polluting. By producing renewable food as well as renewable energy. The details are summarised in ‘How to Fix a Broken Planet’.
The longer we leave things, the more damage we will do to our civilisation and the higher the probability of its collapse, as the UN has already warned us (UN, Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. May 2022). Collapse is the current policy direction of governments the world over – and they need to be jerked out of their state of ‘soft denial’. If the Earth’s temperature reaches +3-4 degrees, not only will we lose the icecaps but global food and water supplies will break down completely and – according to some estimates, 90% of the population will perish.
Australia has a golden opportunity to lead humanity out of its current death-spiral, by proposing an Earth System Treaty in the UN – a legal compact which everyone can sign, committing ourselves to work together for a human-habitable Earth that hosts a rich array of other life.
On World Environment Day, we need to recognise the Earth is a lifeboat. We can either row it to safety together, or go down together. That’s why we now need a World Plan of Action for Human Survival.